Saving the Valley of Elah

Saving the Valley of Elah

And now for something completely different. This weekend I attended an event hosted by the Save the Valley of Elah Project, a campaign that began on Facebook and has transformed into a full-fledged protest movement. For those not familiar with the area, the Valley of Elah, located in the center of the country on the way to Jerusalem, is the biblical site associated with the battle between David and Goliath, and the  encampments of the Israelite and Philistine armies.

It’s also the site of Khirbet Qeiyafa, an archaeological discovery of great significance in the last few years deemed to be, by some archaeologists at least, the palace of King David. Combine this with breathtaking views, and rare flora and fauna, and you have all the makings of an earthly paradise, one which has gone largely unnoticed by many Israelis. Open spaces like the Valley of Elah are especially significant in Israel, given the dearth of space in general, and of open spaces in particular. 

One would assume, then, that developers would have adopted a ‘hands off ‘ approach to the area. Unfortunately, as is often the case in Israel, greed and corruption have a tendency to disturb even the most secure assumptions. The region is located within a few miles from Beit Shemesh, a heavily ultra-orthodox town whose population has grown exponentially in the last few years (and known infamously as the town in which little girls were spat on for not acting ‘modestly’ enough). Israel is a small country with a burgeoning population and a wealth of historical and religious sites, and, given the sometimes irreconcilable tension between the three, the state often fails in protecting one or all of these elements. 

So while it may not be realistic to prevent the expansion or building of new housing projects in sensitive areas in every instance, the plans to expand the area known as Ramat Beit Shemesh are especially egregious. Perched above the valley, these sterile, incongruous looking buildings will cut into the hills surrounding it, causing severe ecological and archaeological damage and encircle Khirbet Qeiyafa. To those who have visited East Jerusalem, they might be reminded by settlements like Har Homa, a large, hulking blight of a development.

In theory, the building up of these areas would be a necessary price to pay given the acute housing shortage in the country. But, as activists claim, there are numerous other ways in which housing within Beit Shemesh can be expanded, including a system called piniu biniu, in which existing buildings are renovated and built up to accommodate more tenants. More to the point, these building plans are apparently based on outdated data from the mid-nineties, that projected a much larger population. About a year ago, due to a massive amount of pressure, the area had been declared a national park by the mayor of Beit Shemesh. Since then, however, he has reneged on his promises and continued along with development.

As activists claimed, this area might act as a canary in the coalmine–a warning that, if areas of such significance are treated in this manner, it’s only a matter of time before other open spaces succumb to a similar fate. The issue is currently held up in a district court, which has given activists time to rally more Israelis to their cause. In a country full of people who have fetishized land to the point of refusing its partition, witnessing this total disregard of environmental and religious sensitives smacked of a particularly ugly hypocrisy.

What most struck me most about the event, however, was the makeup of its participants. Environmental issues in Israel are almost always identified as left-wing causes (as they are in most Western nations), the majority of those in attendance were local citizens from the area, many of them of a religious bent. With the exception of one notable activist associated with the Zionist Union, there were few other conspicuous ‘leftists’; in fact, the contingency of people arriving from Tel Aviv for the event could be counted on one hand.  It’s of course likely that the biblical significance of the area played a defining role in galvanizing them to join the campaign. Nonetheless, it shows that monopolization of causes by a progressive audience is a myth, and a dangerous one at that. It also means that progressive forces in Israel, and in the next Knesset in particular, should seek out like-minded politicians on the center and the right. Stay tuned for more developments. 

By | 2015-02-09T16:25:00-05:00 February 9th, 2015|Blog|0 Comments

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